Gustavo LJ: Havana's Bob the Builder of the Human Body 
 by Victoria Alcalá
 
 
Gustavo always seem to me to be the Bob the Builder of the Human Body. Can he fix it? Yes he can! This is where people who know come, some flying in for the weekend for an intensive session with this eclectic masseuse turned physio turned psychologist turned acupuncturalist. He talks a lot, could pass for a Japanese sumo wrestler and is not cheap (for Cuba), but if you can be fixed, tuned, honed, Gustavo will push, probe and resolve. While there may be many imitations none come close if you want your body mended rather than the ego stroked. Yes he is that good. You heard it from me first. Just don’t be late since his mum can be a tyrant to those who keep her protégé waiting!”
Gutavo Mobile: +53 5 263 8669


Victoria Alcalá writes about Cuban culture. She has won several prestigious writing awards.
 
 

?Masseurs are not bakers?
In the centre of Havana, in a tenement building built in 1904 above an old colonial construction, there is a haven of peace and tranquillity in the midst of a busy and noisy vicinity: apartment No. 28, home and office of Gustavo Laborde, who lives with his mother, his brother and two restless Manchester terriers (Sol and Pepe). I am welcomed by Gustavo, a man who despite the fact that he weighs over 100 kilos, looks younger than his 42 years thanks to his smooth skin and his tender-cum-mischievous smile.

We begin our conversation in a tiny room that serves as living room, dining room and office, from whose walls hang reproductions and originals of works of art, with background music that is as oriental as the scents that surround us. But our chat, as would be expected, does not begin by massage techniques but by his artistic preferences. Gustavo confesses his love for the Baroque style—Bach and Corelli in music, Titian and Caravaggio in painting—along with Cuban post medieval—Cosme Proenza. But also Massenet, Sibelius, Tom Jobin, Sting, Keith Jarret? After such a list, I had no sooner finished asking him if he was interested in Cuban art and literature than he began passionately detailing his preferences: writers Jos? Lezama Lima, Pedro Juan Guti?rrez and Alejo Carpentier; singer-songwriters Pablo Milan?s, Gerardo Alfonso and traditional trova; painters Pedro Pablo Oliva, Servando Cabrera and Ren? Portocarrero. And as proof of his love for Cuban culture, he recites Lezama's ?Ah, que t? escapes?? in a calm and breathless voice, which reminds that of the author, and finishes confessing his attraction for the ambiguity of all good art.

In an attempt to escape from the web of his unforeseeable and intelligent conversation—which he emphasizes moving his strong, agile, well kept and scrupulously clean hands, and spices up with expressions from any of the five languages he speaks apart from Spanish (Russian, English, French, Italian and Portuguese)—and knowing that he had graduated in Telemechanics, Automation, Signalling and Applied Electronic Communication from the Dzerzhinsky Polytechnic Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I ask him how he had steered his professional course to the practice of massage.

?I became interested in massage therapy when I was 11 years old when, because of my asthma, my parents took me to Chinatown where I was given massages and treated with acupuncture. They also taught me breathing exercises and martial arts. On my arrival in Cuba after graduating, I discovered that what I had studied in the former USSR had no application in Cuba anymore and would be forced to ?reorient? myself professionally and study four more years for a valid diploma. Since that alternative didn?t appeal to me at all, I worked as a Russian translator and guide with the victims of Chernobyl, which put me into contact with pain and the need for help and relief by so many human beings. I decided then to take advantage of my communication skills and my manual dexterity in a specialty that would not only give me the chance to be useful to others but would allow me to support my family—my mother, my two seriously ill brothers and my +90-year-old grandmother are all financially dependent on me.

?And since nothing can be done without study and rigour, since 1994 to this day, I have taken a number of courses here in Cuba: chromotherapy, manual physiotherapy, acupuncture anaesthetics in dentistry, general and electro-acupuncture, full body massage, cosmetic massage, Chinese traditional medicine, Yumeiho from Japan, Shiatsu-Do, facial and body cosmetology, chiropractic, yoga, therapeutic physical exercise, general sports massage and neurorehabilitation. I have also studied Swedish massage techniques in Switzerland and Oriental massage in China. I have worked as physiotherapist and masseur at the Habana del Este Pain Clinic; as therapist for NGOs Medecins du Monde (French) and M?dicos del Mundo (Spanish) both in Havana; as masseur aboard the cruise ship Riviera 1, of the Riviera Holiday Co; and as traditional therapist at the Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana. I would like to obtain a degree in osteopathic medicine, but, for the time being, that?s only a dream.

?Right now, I am content with applying everything I have learned both for individuals who request my services and for community projects, which I enjoy very much, such as Las Terrazas in the Sierra del Rosario, Pinar del R?o, where I advise on manual therapies and teach general massage techniques and Shiatsu-Do; with my neighbours in Centro Habana; and courses in which I teach a skill that allows young men and women, many of whom are socially disadvantaged, to earn a decent living. This is a job that makes me very happy because I believe in the social productivity of man, and I put it into practice, whether with my family or teaching something useful for everybody. I also believe in communion with nature, with a universe which we are part of and which I try to explain to myself from the laws of Physics and through other intellective potentialities. Hence my love for the sea, the mountains, animals, hiking, yoga practicing, as well as my enjoyment of the pleasures of eating, perfumes, the beauty of art and man, my search for fulfilment, my rejection to any act that denies life, from wars to prudishness.?

Do you carry this holistic view of the universe along with your everyday work?
?I don?t believe that you can be a good masseur, a truly effective masseur without seeing man as the material and spiritual unity that human beings are. Not everybody needs the same manipulations, the same techniques. Furthermore, according to the physical conditions and the emotional state of an individual at a certain moment, the same person may usually require different actions during each session. Massage is, above all, a means of communication and exchange, a form of profound extra-verbal communication with a person who trusts us with his body and integrity, and this communication between the person who applies the massage and the person who receives it determines its characteristics.

?Holistic massage takes into account the unity I mentioned before, and its ultimate end is to balance, harmonize the physical, intellective and emotional aspects. It is a personal and intimist job, of mutual communication. This is why a masseur?s most important strength is discretion.?

From your answer, one can infer that you do not limit yourself to a single method.
?As the Cuban that I am, I prefer eclecticism, which surrounds us since the day we are born. Our beginnings as a Republic coincided with a boom in eclecticism and this taste has not abandoned us to this day in architecture, the decoration of our homes, food, dress? If the philosophy of one of our founding fathers—F?lix Varela—was to take from each school what was most convenient, without going that far, I apply that same principle in my work, throughout which in my effort to learn and understand different fields of study, I have contracted debts of gratitude with different people, such as Francesco Contino from the Italian Academy of Shiatsu-Do; yoga masters Eduardo Pimentel and Elsa Hermida; Juan Cancio, the first chiropractor in Cuba; and the Swedish masseur Jussy.
?When the time comes to apply a massage, I am able to use, for instance, Shiatsu-Do, or the weight of my hands, but the methods that are based on energy or the traditional European massage, especially the Swedish one, are equally useful. I can give a cosmetic massage, or employ antistress techniques, not because it is my intention to eliminate stress, as this is a factor of adaptive development, but to help the individual to live with it. It all depends on the person?s particular characteristics and needs, because a masseur is not a baker who kneads a piece of lifeless dough. Within the ?style without a style? as Carpentier said, I prefer to avoid percussion and use other low-impact manual techniques, which in no way are less effective.?

Do you believe that massage has a therapeutic end?
?Massage therapy relaxes and tones the muscles, and as all techniques aimed at improving the quality of life, it may solve certain health issues, but therapeutic massage may only be applied as prescribed by a physician. Lymphatic drainage is very beneficial in the case of fluid circulation disorders, especially in the extremities, as well as for pregnant women, senior citizens, bed-ridden patients and convalescents. Some massages can improve the quality of life of patients who have malignant tumours, and others may mitigate the unpleasant effects of occupational diseases, which are almost always derived from bad posture or a sedentary lifestyle. ?Being a masseur in Cuba has its peculiarities. Given that health care is free and available to all citizens, the risk of being seen as quacks is less for those of us who practice massage therapy. Carried out efficiently and professionally, our work complements that of doctors and other therapists and even takes off the load at doctors? offices in the case of individuals who with good and regular manipulation, ultimately do not need certain medical services because our work is also aimed at the prevention of disease.
Mi goal is to integrate my years of multidisciplinary study and practice of massage therapy or holistic medicine applied to the quality of life, from a more human and sustainable approach and use techniques, such as Shiatsu-Do and other harmonious ways of life, such as yoga, to create a healthy and feasible lifestyle, regardless of age, health or occupation.?

After enjoying a massage from Gustavo?s magical hands—which made my usual back pain disappear on the spot—declining the traditional invitation to dinner, a custom in Cuban families, and being presented with a bag of beautiful Vitamin C-rich pimientos, I bid farewell to this friendly and loquacious man, an optimist to the hilt, who became an engineer, would have liked to be a singer, and dedicates his life to heal the pains of body and soul.

Gustavo?s Top 10 Health tips
1. Remember that there is no healthy body without a healthy mind.

2. Repeat to yourself each day that peace is health.

3. Do not forget that rest is a necessary physiological state for the physical load.

4. The first thing in the morning is to breathe deeply and keep good posture.

5. Drink plenty of water.

6. Do not go from a sedentary state to sports that require a lot of effort without prior warming up and stretching.

7. Do not undergo unnecessary surgeries because they cause the greatest stress on your organism.

8. Take into account that tattoos and piercings injure the most extensive organ of the body: the skin.

9. If you practice sports on a regular basis, do not forget to do stretching exercises because they help articulations to recover their function and decrease the impact on them.

10. When you exercise, be sure that the instructor has the appropriate professional information and has the necessary time to do his job.

Gustavo LJ: Havana?s Mr Fix-It
August 2010
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